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Indigenous health a casualty of federal budget

By Harry Throssell - posted Monday, 21 May 2007

The standard of health of Aborigines lags almost 100 years behind that of other Australians, according to the World Health Organisation. Some Indigenous people still suffer from leprosy, rheumatic heart disease and tuberculosis. A similar survey from Oxfam and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation reported that Australia ranked last for health among rich countries with Indigenous populations. (International edition The Guardian Weekly, London, May 11, 2007).

You might think the Australian Government’s Federal Budget would be the ideal place to start setting this right. Especially when the previous week The Australian reported “The Treasurer will unveil a significant funding boost for Aboriginal health programs”, and The Sunday Age predicted “Indigenous Australians will be among the biggest winners in Treasurer Peter Costello's 12th budget on Tuesday”.

But no. Costello made clear in his Budget address Australia is cashed up to the tune of a $10.6 billion surplus, GDP growth of 3.75 per cent, wage growth of 4.25 per cent, and absolutely no debt, so all pensioners could have a $500 gift and many others tax cuts. But in his hour-long spiel the health of Indigenous people received not one mention, even in his section on Healthcare. Not one.


Nor did Indigenous disadvantage make an appearance in Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd’s Budget reply two days later. Nothing.

Further, there were no comments or questions on Indigenous health by political affairs journalists on ABC television immediately after Costello’s speech, or on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast, including AM, the next morning.

Chris Richardson of Access Economics reiterated the government is “rolling in money”, but representatives of welfare organisations commented the poor in general are still left behind, the housing rental crisis not addressed, and there were references by the St Vincent de Paul Society to the “growing cohort of working poor” not affected by the budget. Australian Council of Social Service President Lynne Hatfield-Dodds said there was little relief for those on low incomes, those paying rent, and no real measures to help the jobless.

There were brief mentions of Indigenous needs in newspaper back pages. The Australian’s Caroline Overington had a story about Indigenous ear, nose and throat surgeon Kelvin Kong, who said it’s embarrassing in 2007 to be the nation’s first Aboriginal surgeon “because I’d rather be the 100th”. On Indigenous health “we’re in an emergency situation and it’s not being addressed”, he said. Hatfield-Dodds referred to “looking for the Government to invest … greater resources to tackle Indigenous disadvantage”.

The front page of The Courier-Mail: “Whether you are a pensioner, a student, an apprentice, a working mum or a high-income earner, there was something substantial announced last night just for you. And invariably, the substance is in the form of cold, hard cash … and a stack of giveaways for everyone from parents to pensioners.” Well, not quite everyone.

In the Australian Financial Review’s budget supplement John Breusch commented Australia’s health system ranked among the world’s best, although its flaws include “the appalling state of Indigenous health”.


The National Indigenous Times had a different take: “The area that is most disappointing is health. Despite under-funding to the tune of about half a billion dollars a year, the federal government has announced additional Indigenous health funding of just $90 million, and two quarters of that will be spent on drug initiatives and capital works programs.

“At the same time, Australian taxpayers get a surplus of almost $11 billion, plus tax cuts worth three times that amount yet they still wonder why Indigenous Australia is in such a mess … The tragedy is that the government is likely to be applauded for it, because mainstream media analysis of the Indigenous affairs budget has been almost zero.”

Professor Jon Altman of Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy was scathing in his budget review. On SBS TV’s Living Black he said the budget was simply more of the same, “enormously disappointing … turning a blind eye” to the need for massively increased expenditure on community based housing, health services and jobs. There was too little recognition that 75 per cent of Indigenous people live in urban areas. Budgeting only $37 million for health was “enormous under-expenditure” considering the Australian Medical Association called for $460 million.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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